In the LGBT-Christian dialogue, there are generally two major camps of thought:
1) Side A, which believes that God blesses gay relationships under the same provisions as heterosexual relationships, and
2) Side B, which believes that God does not bless same-sex sexual activity of any kind, and therefore gay/bisexual Christians are called to abstain from sexual intimacy, unless they happen to marry someone of the opposite sex.
It has come to my attention that many people on both sides of this issue lack a comprehensive Biblical understanding of why either side believes what it does (really, who does, though?). In both cases, we usually end up regurgitating what we’ve been told our entire lives without questioning whether or not our reasoning is philosophically sound; we often do this without realizing exactly what we’re saying and end up simply talking past each other. If we ever hope to accomplish fruitful dialogue, we must learn how to communicate on the same page.
This series of posts will attempt to rectify that situation by presenting what I believe to be the most pertinent data, followed by an analysis of what we can and cannot conclude from it. I will try to keep it simple, and as I state in my disclaimer from my About page, I am not a theological authority — I’m only here to help you think, not to tell you what to think. For all our sakes, you’re more than welcome to double check my facts.
This first post will address the so-called “Clobber Passages,” also known as “The Big 5” (though whether there are actually five is debatable). These are the Biblical passages that say anything remotely related to homosexuality, which many people on Side B reference to support the claim that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. I personally find their use overstated; to treat the following as prooftexts would be shallow and philosophically unsubstantiated. At best, they say negative things about homosexual acts, and at worst they’re brutal mistranslations of ancient Hebrew and Greek. There is no reason that these specific verses should hold more or less weight than any other Biblical passage.
No one should view these passages as a sufficient proof for the traditional sexual ethic — Side A knows these verses quite intimately and has good reason to dispute the “orthodox” or literal interpretations. Without proper analysis, the conclusion that anyone comes to regarding the Clobber Passages is almost always very close to the hypothesis they started with. Also, weaponizing select portions of Scripture in this manner only undermines our intellectual integrity, impedes fruitful dialogue, and encourages theological myopia. So here’s to hoping we can move beyond these stumbling blocks that are all too often treated as end-all-be-alls.
1) Gang Rape, Angels, and Inhospitality
4 But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house. 5 And they called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.” 6 Lot went out to the men at the entrance, shut the door after him, 7 and said, “I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly…”
— Genesis 19:4-7 (ESV)
This passage immediately follows Genesis 18, in which Abraham pleas for God to spare the city of Sodom if He finds even ten righteous people living there. Evidently, there were nine or fewer, because God sends two angels in the form of men to go and warn Lot — Abraham’s nephew — that destruction is coming.
Interestingly enough, Genesis 19 doesn’t begin with a strong sense of urgency. It’s evening and Lot’s hanging out by the city’s gate. Upon seeing the two strangers, he immediately offers his hospitality, despite their protests. He welcomes them into his home and bakes them a feast.
The action doesn’t start until nightfall, when every male citizen in the city (read: ALL OF THEM) decide to welcome the passersby with a friendly invitation to a traditional Sodom get-to-know-you event (wink, wink). Lot’s not down for that, so like the father-of-the-year he is, he offers his virgin daughters to them, to which they respond, “you’re not even from here, but now you’re being all judgy. We’re gonna get even freakier with you after we’re done with the strangers.” Then they try to break down the door, but the angels blind the Sodomites and evict Lot’s family from the premises. Once they get in a nice family jog to the nearby town of Zoar, God nukes Sodom and Gomorrah. Lot’s wife can’t even, so she looks back and becomes a pile of salt.
Later on you find out that Lot becomes a cave hermit with his daughters, and they want heirs so badly they get him drunk and themselves pregnant. Ohana means family, and family means dysfunctional.
The Gibeah story in Judges 19:22-30 is pretty much the same except there are no angels and a woman gets gang raped and chopped into 12 pieces. No one really talks about that one.
49 Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. 50 They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.
— Ezekiel 16:49-50 (ESV)
The Sodom story is probably the most well-abused of the clobber passages; Biblical alarmists often quote it to warn of God’s wrath against “the homosexuals,” and it’s even where we get the words “sodomy” and “sodomite.” But interestingly enough, it has very little to do with consensual, monogamous, homosexual activity. According to the prophet Ezekiel, Sodom was destroyed for four main sins: pride, gluttony, luxury, and inhospitality. In this case, we’re going to focus on the last one.
One of the first things we should notice in this narrative is how insanely nice Lot is to the angels. He’s ruthlessly hospitable to these strangers — a feast and a bed, he insists. In Cantonese, we have similar hospitality customs called 客氣 haak hei. The ancient Greeks called it xenia, and the Romans called it hospitium. In ancient cultures, this concept kept travelers from death, and was even connected to worship in some senses. It was really dang important. Important enough for God to command it. So when we really think about it, Lot’s not being abnormally nice; he’s just doing what he’s supposed to — something that the rest of the city neglects to do. In fact, they oppose him.
Nowadays, a lot of weight is often put on the fact that the angels were in the form of men, and how the men of Sodom want to “know them.” But when we actually consider the context of this demand, it’s clear that these people aren’t extending an invitation to a friendly gay orgy.
It’s attempted gang rape.
Every man and boy in the city goes out of his way to surround the only hospitable residence after hearing that two strangers have arrived. Not one of them is righteous, so they obviously don’t care about hospitality at all, and they want to degrade the guests by subjecting them to the humiliation of gang rape. They want to exert dominance and power by sending a message: visitors not welcome. That’s why Lot asks them not to “not act so wickedly,” and why they try to break down the door before the angels blind them. It’s a much more convincing scenario than “all of them were gay.” Seriously.
Let’s be clear — Sodom was destroyed for a variety of reasons, but homosexuality isn’t even mentioned explicitly. If anything, it’s a hundred steps down from the blatant violation of hospitality codes. Ezekiel makes this very evident, and we can see it quite obviously when we reread Genesis 19. So why do we still even consider this relevant?
One reason is that some people think it still has New Testament significance:
7 just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.
— Jude 1:7 (ESV)
I’m embarrassed for anyone who uses this as an anti-gay prooftext. Whoever does so apparently forgets to read footnotes.
The phrase in question here is “unnatural desire,” posed right after “sexual immorality.” So if you already thought the sin of Sodom was homosexuality, I suppose that connection might make sense. Unless you read Greek (or footnotes, for that matter). The Greek phrase here is sarkòs hetéras, which literally means “other flesh.” Other. Like, not human. If Jude was talking about homosexuality, he wouldn’t have dared use the word hetéras, which is the complete opposite.
Some claim what he is referring to is a sort of bestiality — angel-human sex that Jude believed led to the Deluge in Noah’s time due to his strange fascination with the apocryphal book 1 Enoch, which catalogues the birth of the Nephilim (see Genesis 6) as the result of fallen angels impregnating human women. Gross.
There is one narrowly workable reason that we might consider holding onto this piece of evidence, and it has everything to do with Ezekiel’s use of the word “abomination.” The Hebrew word appears six times in the book of Leviticus (ignoring the 111 occurrences elsewhere), two of which are a part of a repeated command in reference to male-male homosexual activity. Hmm…
Conclusion: Likely irrelevant.
We can all agree that gang rape is wrong, but this passage tells us next to nothing about homosexual acts. One almost happens, but the fact that it’s (vaguely) homosexual is very much secondary to the story and no one has anything substantial to say about it. It’s like saying lying while chewing gum is sinful. We know that lying is a sin, but chewing gum? It could just be something that was going on at the same time, but who’s to say whether or not we should condemn chewing gum based solely on that? There isn’t much at all we’re allowed to say about homosexuality from this.
2) Moral Law, Cult Prostitution, and Abominations
22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.
— Leviticus 18:22 (ESV)
13 If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.
— Leviticus 20:13 (ESV)
If Leviticus had a subtitle, it would probably be How to be an Ancient Jew for Dummies or something like that. Basically, it’s a really long list of commands describing how to be a good Levite in the time of Moses.
Because it’s a list, the context appears to be less helpful here — Leviticus 17 is about sacrificing properly and not eating blood; Leviticus 18 is mostly about bad sex stuff; and Leviticus 19 is about… well, a lot of different things. It’s a really mixed assortment of commands, some of which include:
- not being rude to deaf or blind people
- not holding grudges
- not interbreeding cows
- not sowing two different seeds in one field
- not trimming your beard
- not getting tattoos
- not pimping out your own daughter (sorry, Lot)
- being nice to strangers (sorry, Sodom)
So you get the point.
On the surface, there’s not much of a common thread to all these commands. They don’t seem to have very much to do with each other, except for one clue we get at the beginning of chapter 18, in verse 3:
3 You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes.
— Leviticus 18:3 (ESV)
The entire point of the law here was to distinguish the Israelites from the pagan countries surrounding them. Leviticus, the law of the Levites — the clan of priests — is a book of liturgy. It details the acceptable practice of worshipping the God of Moses, as distinct from the false gods. Upon further inspection, we see that the practices detailed in Leviticus 17 and 19 are all related to pagan worship — blood-drinking, idol-making, cult prostitution, fortunetelling, ritualistic self-mutilation — which brings us to the sexy chapter smack dab in the middle of the pagan practice prohibition.
30 So keep my charge never to practice any of these abominable customs that were practiced before you, and never to make yourselves unclean by them: I am the Lord your God.”
— Leviticus 18:30 (ESV)
When dealing with Leviticus, Biblical scholars popularly like to make a distinction between what we call moral law vs. ceremonial law. Ceremonial law pertains to Jewish ritual and health, and was fulfilled by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Moral law describes the eternal character of God.
Most Christians today would agree that we shouldn’t excommunicate (either for a week or forever) a married couple because they’re using the rhythm method, nor should we subject a man to church discipline because he shaved. So there has to be a reason we still follow certain parts of Levitical law and not others.
So how do we make this distinction? The most common answer is that we look at the rest of Scripture to determine if it’s still consistent with the New Covenant. Which, in this case, is supremely unhelpful — if this command shows up in the New Testament, then it doesn’t tell us anything new. When it comes to making moral distinctions, the entire book of Leviticus is supplemental at best.
But let’s keep looking at this passage anyways, because it can still be important as a supplemental reference (as we will see later).
As we discussed previously, the entirety of Leviticus 18 is juxtaposed right alongside the idea of idol worship. This is supported by the fact that the Hebrew word for “abomination,” toebah, is especially used in reference to idolatry. The verse right before the one in question is about child sacrifice. Like, what?
(Sidenote: the Hebrew word commonly rendered in the KJV as “abomination,” and in the ESV as “detestable,” is sheqets; this word references things that are ceremonially unclean, like eating shellfish.)
In this context, some scholars suggest that this verse is addressing the main form of male-male homosexual sex at the time — cult prostitution — which was a popular form of pagan worship. This passage confronts improper ways of worshipping Yahweh, who does not delight in the same practices that the Canaanites and Egyptians worshipped with. Verse 30 suggests everything listed in chapter 18 is an “abominable custom”, or is improper worship, so sorry period sex — in this context, it’s just as “abominable” as homosexuality.
Heck if I know if this commandment was a sweeping generalization of all gay sex, or was specifically referencing it in connection to idol worship. Nor can we be sure whether this is moral or ceremonial law. There’s enough evidence to settle on either conclusion, but ultimately Leviticus isn’t enough to say much of anything on the matter. Like I said, it’s supplemental at best, and confusing regardless.
3) Natural Relations, Judgmental Hypocrisy, and Straw Men
Text(s): Romans 1:18-32
26 For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged physikèn relations for those that are parà phýsin; 27 and the men likewise gave up physikèn relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
— Romans 1:26-27 (ESV / SBLGNT)
Welcome to the New Testament. Romans 1 is the first time since Leviticus that the Scriptural canon mentions homosexuality. Which isn’t surprising, since the Bible is not a book about human sexuality; it is a book about God, as Mel White famously said.
This gentle passage comes very near the beginning of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. Some speculate that he’s writing from Corinth, a city notorious for its pagan, sex-saturated culture (unlike modern America, of course); after greeting the church and expressing his longing to go visit them, Paul jumps right into his argument about righteousness, faith, and sin.
The book of Romans is pretty much all about righteousness. Depravity, sinfulness, and the (Jewish) Law all set up the backdrop to that, so that’s where he starts. “Hi, I want to see you guys, the righteous shall live by faith, GOD HATES SIN LOOK AT THOSE SINNERS” (I’m not a theologian, so forgive me if I’m a bit irreverent).
Now, Paul is no novice at rhetoric. There’s a reason he’s coming down so viciously on the unrighteous, and it’s most likely that he’s setting up an argument. One that catalogues God’s righteousness, His clear revelation, and the rebellion of sinful humanity.
Presumably drawing upon the abhorrent practices of the Corinthian cults, he lists out the things that God has abandoned sinners to because of their rejection of Him: foolishness, idol worship, lusts and impurities, homosexual behavior, and so on. They know the Law, they disobey it, and they deserve to die.
And guess what? So do you.
1 Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.
— Romans 2:1 (ESV)
Far too often is Romans 1 used to judge the sins of the gay community, and every time it happens I find myself with my palm over my face. It’s one thing to humbly exegete this passage, and another to condemn a fellow human with it. The irony is strong, and it makes me wonder how many people stop reading at the end of the chapter. In Paul’s original letter there were no chapter numbers. There was no heading signifying a change of topic. There wasn’t even spacing or punctuation. It was intended to be read as an unbroken buildup leading to a powerful point, which begins with Romans 2:1.
The rhetorical structure of this passage is meant to rile the reader up into agreeing with Paul’s accusations. “Look at those sinners over there! Look how horrible they are!” As the church shouts amen after amen. “And you’re just like them! By judging them you condemn yourselves!” I’d imagine the congregation got a lot quieter after that was read. The entire point of Romans 1 and 2 was to convince the church of Rome that everyone is a sinner in need of Christ. In their zeal to judge the unrighteous Gentiles, the Jewish Christians were guilty of blasphemous hypocrisy.
This rhetoric leads some to believe that Romans 1:18-32 isn’t even Paul’s view at all. What he’s constructed could be a straw man of some sort — an echo of prevailing Jewish judgment on the filthy Gentiles. This might be why he uses the word “they” over and over until chapter 2, when he turns the tables on the audience with the word “you.” While I’m not necessarily in a hurry to dismiss this viewpoint, I’m not exactly convinced, given the fact that Paul reaffirms his condemnation in Romans 2:2 — which, let’s not forget, still applies to the reader.
But this conjecture isn’t completely empty, as this isn’t the only time Paul is thought to be echoing his audience. He does the same thing in 1 Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23, where he quotes a popular Corinthian slogan and defeats its intent by adding a comment of his own. Even if what he’s saying in Romans 1 is true, he nonetheless attacks the motives behind such judgmental condemnation. If Paul saw how some Christians today abuse his words, I have no doubt he would be ashamed of us.
A literal reading of the chapter gives us the traditional stance, at least in English. But unfortunately, it’s still not that simple. Even if Paul wasn’t using a straw man and really meant what he said, we still need to make sure that our translation is accurate to what he originally meant.
First off, there’s the interpretation that Paul’s reference to the pagan culture only condemns homosexuality within the context of cult prostitution, similar to how some view the verses in Leviticus. But I don’t think this theory holds too much water, since the way that Paul frames his argument rests upon the idea that unnatural homosexual behavior is a product of idolatry, not just something that accompanies it. And let’s remember that every human, ever (except Christ Himself), is an idolater — none of us are exempt from the sins listed.
Still, a literal reading of this passage feels very much like a slap in the face to any Christian who experiences same-sex attraction; despite our best attempts to acknowledge God, honor Him, and live by His commands (or at least what we’ve been taught His commands are), it stings to be told that we’re “suppressing the truth” and that God “gave us up to dishonorable passions” more than any heterosexual person.
Maybe, on a pastoral level, it would help not to make homosexual behavior a special case of sin separate from every other one that Paul convicts humanity of in the same passage; after all, we as a whole “practice the very same things.”
But there is one more thing that bothers me on a very personal level: the word “exchanged.” Trust me, if I could exchange my romantic and sexual desires, I would have done so years ago and saved myself depression, anxiety, self-hate, and thoughts of suicide. It’s particularly difficult to wrestle with a passage that tells me I “exchanged natural relations” when I never wanted this “unnatural” one in the first place. To be honest, it’s offensive. But no one ever promised the Bible would be an easy book to read.
Which brings us to another interpretive roadblock that has to do with the Greek word for “natural,” physikèn. This is where we get the English word “physics,” and depending on its usage, it’s hardly a term that operates in ideals. Its meaning is much closer to “occurring in nature; by instinct” than it is to “how nature should be.” Paul also uses the same phrase, “contrary to nature,” very positively in Romans 11:24. But that doesn’t stop him from using it in other ways, including in what we might consider to be cultural observations, such as his comment about hair in 1 Corinthians 11:14.
If we approach Romans 1 with a presupposition that homosexuality is a distortion of natural heterosexual behavior, then this translation only serves to confirm our hypothesis. If we approach it presupposing that a homosexual orientation is an inborn nature (phýsin) as a part of diverse humanity, then this changes everything.
Under the latter presupposition, the presence of the word “exchanged” makes a bit more sense. The idea is that otherwise heterosexual pagans countered their own inborn natures by engaging in excessive sexual behavior, fragrantly disregarding God and saying, “How You made me isn’t enough.”
So where does this leave LGB Christians? Depending on which presupposition we start with, and whether we should read this passage literally, our conclusion changes drastically — if non-heterosexual orientations are the result of a fallen world and are distortions of our natural selves, then these dishonorable passions are evidently the penalty God has given us up to. If God fearfully and wonderfully made us this way (remember, we’re forgoing any other presuppositions here), then our physikèn relations are intended to be with the same gender. If that’s the case, then this passage loses relevance in the discussion.
Part of me thinks that anything beyond a literal reading of Scripture is too much like exegetic gymnastics. The other part of me feels the need to dig into the text and examine it with the utmost scrutiny so I can be sure I’ve interpreted it accurately and to the best of my ability. There is a fine balance here, with such a wealth of different interpretations that all seem to have a piece of truth in them.
This is probably the trickiest of all the Clobber Passages, and also is probably the most important. The conclusion we come to has a huge bearing on how we view sin, and therefore becomes instrumental in how we view atonement and righteousness. But which one is right?
4 and 5) Man-bedders, Softies, and Greek Translations
9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor malakoì, nor àrsenokoítai, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
— 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (ESV / SBLGNT)
9b…the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, àrsenokoítai, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine…
— 1 Timothy 1:9b-10 (ESV / SBLGNT)
Remember what I said about Corinth being a Godless, sex-crazed city? Well, Paul wrote a letter to the church there, and that’s where this first passage comes from. The second passage comes from a letter the apostle wrote to Timothy, a young pastor whom Paul considered his “true child in the faith.”
Their contexts are dissimilar — the verses in 1 Corinthians follow a rebuke against suing fellow believers, and they precede a warning against sexual immorality (which isn’t surprising, considering who the letter was addressed to). The 1 Timothy verses are part of a warning against false teachers.
So why did I lump these two passages together? It has less to do with their place in the text than it has to do with the words Paul used. Because these are both lists, the larger contexts are somewhat unhelpful (but don’t quote me on that; I could be very wrong here). The reason we typically address these verses together is because they use the exact same words to refer to homosexuality. Or so we think.
22 You shall not koíten with an àrsenos as with a woman; it is an abomination.
— Leviticus 18:22 (ESV / LXX)
It’s silly, actually. We make a huge fuss over just two Greek words and the fact that Paul condemns the people they describe — malakós and àrsenokoítes (Pl. malakoì and àrsenokoítai). Translated literally, they mean “soft” and “man-bed,” respectively.
Malakós appears in the New Testament four times — three times to describe clothing, and once to describe a person. Throughout the years, English Bibles have translated the word as “weaklings,” “wantons,” “effeminate,” and “male prostitutes,” just to name a few. Considering its literal definition of “soft,” it’s not surprising that it had a variety of definitions depending on the context.
Àrsenokoítes is a hapax legomenon — it doesn’t appear anywhere in the New Testament other than the two passages in question. Nor does it appear in any surviving Greek document older than the Pauline epistles, which leads many scholars to believe that this was a term Paul coined from the Septuagint’s (LXX) — the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures — version of Leviticus 18:22, as seen above.
Yay, Leviticus is actually useful now! Sort of. Maybe. We don’t actually know if that’s what Paul was intending, but if he was, then we run into the same problems that we ran into back when we were talking about improper worship and sweeping generalizations.
Either way, àrsenokoítes seems to have a straightforward meaning solely based on its literal translation. Man + bed = gay sex, right? Well, probably. But just as an English counterexample, sweet + bread = thymus gland dish. And if you know anything about Chinese, you’d know that words can get combined to mean the strangest things, like 東 (east) + 西 (west) = 東西 (stuff). Maybe things aren’t that simple, or maybe they are. I’m not confident àrsenokoítes means exactly what we think it means.
Some translations have interpreted malakoì‘s proximity to àrsenokoítai to mean that they should be taken as a unit (despite there being no obvious grammatical reason to do so), rendering them as the “passive” and “active” partners in male homosexual sex. Aside from being somewhat of a linguistic stretch, this claim is strange given the fact that ancient Greek already had words for those — kínaidos and paiderastés. If Paul wanted to be clear about homosexuality, he shouldn’t have used a word he made up himself rather than just using the common terms. It’s all very unnerving.
Another possibility is that Paul is addressing the Greek practice of pederasty, which involved older, usually married men who took younger, adolescent boys as “mentees,” or lovers — the words here, though, were èrastés and èrómenos. Same problem.
One popular critique of the traditional (Side B) stance involves the idea that Paul would not have any concept of a committed, monogamous same-sex relationship because the notion of sexual orientation didn’t even exist until around the 19th century. Ancient Greeks didn’t define themselves based on their sexual acts or attractions; it was common for men to engage in sexual acts with both genders — hence pederasty.
The reality is that despite not having the same concepts of gay/straight that we have today, Paul would have still known about exclusive, dedicated gay relationships even if he called it by a different name. He was well versed in his Greek philosophy, so no doubt he would have encountered it with Plato and the like. It was not a foreign concept, and under the orthodox reading we do not get to exempt it.
Lastly, it’s also weird how if malakoì and àrsenokoítai are used in reference to sexual immorality, Paul is effectively repeating himself three times in the same breath. If you look back at his list in 1 Corinthians, he condemns: sexual immorality, idolatry, adultery, malakoì, and àrsenokoítai. In 1 Timothy he condemns àrsenokoítai right after sexual immorality. On one hand, he might just be expounding on his blanket statement concerning sexual immorality. On the other hand, maybe he’s talking about something totally different.
So we’re not completely sure what either of those words mean. The most gay-friendly translations of malakoì and àrsenokoítai would probably be “morally weak” and “partakers in pagan male cult prostitution.” Elegant.
Oh Paul, why couldn’t you have been more clear? My sentiments are summarized below by a quotation from Justin Lee in his book Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate.
And so, it seemed, the entire Bible argument came down to this one word. The Leviticus and Romans passages had a clear context of idolatry, not committed relationships. If 1 Corinthians 6:9 was condemning the same things, or something else like pederasty, then the Bible didn’t address committed gay relationships at all. If arsenokoitai, however, was really a reference to all gay sex in every time and place, then it shed light on the other passages as well, and any other interpretation was just looking for loopholes.
— Justin Lee, Torn
Intellectual Integrity, Epistemic Humility, and Unconditional Compassion
5 The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6 Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, 7 desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.
— 1 Timothy 1:5-7 (ESV)
I suppose I should apologize for the amount of irony I’m exposing you all to by quoting the verse above. If you note the reference, it’s pulled from a few sentences ahead of the 1 Timothy passage that contains the word àrsenokoítai. But I couldn’t resist — whenever I read this I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry; it’s so applicable to our current situation.
It’s hard for me to count how many times I’ve seen people — both on Side A and Side B — act like they’re experts when they evidently have not spent nearly enough time with the subject. They claim that the answer is “clear,” but after examining the Biblical passages above, the only thing I can clearly say is that it is not clear. It is not simple, and it is not obvious. If it was obvious, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
Intellectual integrity with such a topic requires that we examine as much data as thoroughly as we possibly can before reaching a conclusion, which means we must acknowledge and confront each piece of evidence before dismissing it — especially if we disagree with it. Refusing to fully interact with an opposing argument only belies a lack of confidence in one’s position. So in this we must continually turn a skeptic’s eye upon ourselves, being honest about our own presuppositions, our own biases, and our own personal agendas — we all have one, whether or not we’re willing to admit it.
Ultimately, the presence of alternate interpretations regarding the Clobber Passages is by itself insufficient to conclude that gay sex is not a sin. Ambiguity does not constitute refutation of in and of itself. In addition, we must exercise the utmost caution in overturning a longstanding position the Church has held for over two millennia — and though tradition alone is also an insufficient reason for belief, we have to trust that our forebears were not simply fools in believing what they have for so long. Let us be patient with ourselves and others when it comes to answering such difficult questions.
Conversely, I say that reading an English Bible literally without critical analysis is irresponsible. As much as is possible, take nothing for granted. Take nothing at face value. Break apart your own assumptions and relentlessly chase after the truth of God as if you do not fully have it. Because none of us do.
The Bible says many things that we find disagreeable. There’s a reason the writer of Hebrews calls it sharper than a double-edged sword. It cuts deep, wounds, and draws blood. We count ourselves fools for pretending we can fully comprehend it, as if it were something to be tamed — rather, to study theology is to play with fire, and we can only hope to survive the fire if we approach it humbly.
Epistemic humility in this case means resigning to the understanding that we may very well be wrong. It means dropping our weapons, baring our souls, and bowing before the throne of God alongside our brothers and sisters. It means giving up the idea that we are somehow holier, wiser, or more blessed than any other person. As my theology professor once said, “everyone’s a little bit of a heretic.” If God requires perfect doctrine of us, the New Creation will be very empty indeed. That’s not to say that we don’t have core beliefs, but it is to say that complete and total understanding of God is not required — or even feasible, for the righteous shall live by faith.
Humility also requires us to face the possibility of human error in distorting the original meaning of God’s Word — after all, we’ve already done the same thing to His Image. Though I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture, I also believe in the fallibility of humanity. It’s quite possible that over thousands of years of copying, recopying, translating, and retranslating, our current English Bibles are not 100% accurate to the original writing. We certainly hope this isn’t the case, but we must acknowledge it, given the fact that even our best Greek and Hebrew manuscripts have discrepancies — and given how old they are, we’re lucky those discrepancies are small. On top of that, our current Biblical canon wasn’t even established until the Council of Trent in 1546.
After everything discussed above, it is especially important to ask ourselves why we are a part of this discussion. For those of us who are attracted to the same sex, this is a huge deal. The answer to the question about homosexuality impacts our entire lives — how we shall love. For everyone else, this question often appears innocuous until someone in your life — a friend, a child, a coworker — comes out, asks you what this means for them, and you’re forced to look them dead in the eyes and say, “I don’t know.”
Far too many words in this discussion have been spoken out of anger, fear, and judgment all wrapped up in a thin disguise of “love.” Wars are waged and litmus tests conducted based solely on who is on what side, both sides claiming “love.” Not only is this heartbreaking, but it tarnishes the good name of God’s love. Love does not say “but,” it does not say “unless,” it does not say “except.” Honest love and pure compassion do not come with a list of conditions, and never is their prime concern being “right.”
Some people take it upon themselves to police their fellow Christians and fire their “sniper rifles of truth-telling,” as Matt Jones puts it. But as any LGBT+ person will tell you, this is hardly ever perceived as loving. It’s important to ask what it truly means to love someone, and I’m not talking about the whole “love the sinner, hate the sin” crap. I’m talking about the messy, dirty, bloody work of Jesus. To me, the very barest minimum of love is to desire the best for that person.
If you want the best for your gay friends, be patient and pray for us — especially if you think we’re wrong. If you want what’s best for us, and you don’t think same-sex partnership is that best, then maybe you can gently let us know once — then respect our reply and move on; trust me, we won’t forget, and some of us will actually agree with you. If you want what’s best for us, stay by our side. You will win no one over by abandoning or attacking them.
I ask this in earnestness: will you weep with us when we are lost and confused? Will you hold our hand when we feel the burden is too great? Will you embrace us when we feel rejected and alone?
You don’t have to wave a rainbow flag to be an ally. All you have to do is be there for the LGBT+ people in your life, because that means more to us than any article you share, or any Pride parade you attend. All you have to do is call us friend, and walk with us.
Isn’t that what Jesus would do?
Aaron Harburg – The Top 18 Ways Conservative Catholics Have Failed at Loving Gays
Eliel Cruz – “Where Were You?”
Jason Tong – A Modern Resource List on Christian LGB Sexuality
Julie Rodgers – Grace in the Crisis of Authority
Matt Jones – A Church of Pure Imagination
Matthias Roberts – Stop Comparing Your Lust to My Sexual Orientation
The Marin Foundation – Recommended Reading
Part 2: (coming eventually…)